HELENA – Montana won a late request Wednesday to join a complex lawsuit over salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia Basin.
The state wants to be a player in negotiations between the federal government and environmentalists who filed the litigation. State officials cited a need to protect Montana’s wildlife and other natural resources and shield its utility customers from potentially higher prices.
The motion, filed late Tuesday, was granted Wednesday afternoon by U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland, said Bruce Measure, a Montana member of the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Redden in June ordered the government to spill water over five basin dams to help young salmon migrating to the Pacific, a decision that was upheld later by a federal appeals court. The increased water flows are scheduled to last through August, although negotiations for long-term plans are under way. A status hearing on the negotiations is planned Sept. 14.
Montana argues that higher flows in the Columbia Basin will cause water shortages behind its Libby and Hungry Horse dams, where Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse reservoir feed into the Columbia Basin.
Erratic reservoir levels also could hurt recreation opportunities and reverse gains the state has made in protecting native bull trout, sturgeon and westslope cutthroat trout in the Flathead and Kootenai river drainages, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.
“Montana is always hesitant to jump head first into a lawsuit,” he said. “However, the time has come to make sure that the interests of the people of Montana are heard.”
The Bush administration called Redden’s order an “untested experiment,” and “micromanaging the Columbia River.” Environmentalists claim the government hasn’t met its obligations to protect the threatened salmon, and some hope to eventually remove four of the affected dams in southeastern Washington – the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake River. The fifth dam in the case, the McNary Dam on the Columbia River, straddles the borders of Oregon and Washington.
The government argued that Redden’s order jeopardized a salmon recovery plan already in place. On Wednesday, Schweitzer said it also threatens a Northwest Power and Conservation Council proposal that calls for keeping the two northwestern Montana reservoirs higher during the summer while stabilizing release fluctuations.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated by the dams, has estimated the order will cost $67 million in lost revenue, which could be borne by utility customers in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Washington.
Schweitzer said that money could have gone toward reducing electric rates, and added that saving one species should not come at the cost of others.
“Montana intends to present a moderate voice in this otherwise contentious arena,” he said.
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